Why mundane moments truly matter – and how we can make the most of them
"How we spend our days is how we spend our lives." How, then, can we be more introspective and reflective?
My mother and I have sipped tea with maharanis, swapped stories with Burmese nuns and bumped through the streets of Bangkok on midnight tuk tuks – but the delight we return to, again and again, is the moon.
“Go outside and take a look,” she’ll command over text, and I’ll stumble out the door to glimpse at a crescent sliver.
We swap cellphone photos of fuzzy white discs that are indistinguishable from the ones that preceded them but offer what feels like newfound delight.
Our shared moon: A simple joy that binds us together across years and over continents.
Although we, as a culture, typically favour the superlative, research shows that moonlight, and everything that is revealed in ordinary moments of our life, matters.
Valuing the routine enriches our lives in ways we do not expect, because “how we spend our days,” the author Annie Dillard reminds us, “is how we spend our lives.”
Ting Zhang, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, underscored the significance of the everyday in a recent study.
“What we wanted to do,” Dr Zhang explained, “was show that people underestimate the value of documenting the present, especially the mundane.
"We hire photographers for special occasions, but don’t really capture the rich day-to-day experiences that make up so much of our life.”
Dr Zhang and her team assembled 135 undergraduate students and asked them to put together time capsules – written reflections on quotidian experiences including the last social event they attended, three songs they had recently listened to and a Facebook status update.
Then, they were asked to estimate how curious they would be at future point in time to see what they had shared.
At the time of assembly, students ranked their curiosity at an average of 3, on a 1-to-7 scale. But three months later, when polled just before opening their reflections, ratings jumped to over 4.
Other portions of the study reinforced the finding that time changes the perceived value of ordinary actions, with an added exploration of the ordinary versus extraordinary.
For example, students not only underestimated their future curiosity about reading written summaries of recent conversations; but those who rated their conversations as “ordinary” also more greatly underestimated both curiosity and interest.
And while perceptions of so-called extraordinary events (Valentine’s Day, in Dr Zhang’s study) held constant, seemingly unremarkable events came to be perceived as more remarkable over time.
“We think about reflection as something that is beneficial in the present moment,” Dr Zhang explained, “but it can also be helpful in the future – and may help other people, too.”
Paying attention to mundanities, said Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less, can help us hold onto what is important.
One example he shared with The Times is an anecdote about his grandfathers. One hadn’t left any personal record of his life: “We lost everything.”
But the other had captured ephemeral moments through short notes – “One or two sentences every few days for 50 years.” That, he says, became “connective tissue”.
These reflections offer a way to make sense of the ways we’re tethered to the world around us but, as Dr Zhang’s study shows, what we think we value can shift over time.
“After keeping my journal for several years,” Mr McKeown said, “I started rereading them. One of the things that really surprised me was how many of the entries didn’t seem important anymore.
I was writing down things I was thankful for that – almost by definition – should have been things that mattered. But most of them didn’t. As the years had gone by, things that had seemed ordinary became extraordinary.”
It is these humble moments that are celebrated in the artist and writer Lissa Jensen’s online course Creating the Visual Journal.
“Everything we associate with self-reflection is just as likely to be found in the mundane as in the exceptional,” she said. “Honouring the seemingly ‘trivial’ is a way of saying everything is potent, everything is useful.”
Jensen captures little moments she describes as “personal haikus” through both text and illustration.
“A broken window, a vacant gas station at dusk, the calm delight of picking out ripe avocados… their power comes from their insignificance. As anyone who has read fairy tales knows, things are never just what they seem: A mirror is not just a mirror, an apple is not just an apple, the old woman in the forest is not just an old woman.”
The author Dan McAdams explains that these self-reflections are how we make sense of our lives. “Truth,” he writes in Stories We Live By: Personal Myths And The Making Of The Self, “is constructed in the midst of our loving and hating; our tasting, smelling and feeling; our daily appointments and weekend lovemaking; in the conversations we have with those to whom we are closest; and with the strangers we meet on the bus.”
Introspective writing can help reduce blood pressure, increase immune function and mitigate impacts of stress, depression and diseases ranging from irritable bowel syndrome and breast cancer to asthma and rheumatoid arthritis.
But its most enduring value lies in self-discovery: We unearth ourselves through the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
SO HOW DO WE GET STARTED?
Slow down and take notice.
Ms Jensen suggests honing our observation skills throughout the day. “Try to remember what people are wearing – or what you see. Things like that can really help train your mind to stay present. And keep a pocket journal so you can pull that out instead of your phone when you’re standing in line or waiting for a bus or a train.”
Let less be more.
Mr McKeown recommends a method of documentation that, he says, may seem counterintuitive: Write less. “I suggest writing no less than one sentence and no more than five until it’s a deep-set habit. A little is a lot more than nothing.”
Another tactic Mr McKeown recently employed was a daily log – a time capsule of the day where he captured everything he had done in the order he did them. “It was valuable for me to not only look at what I was saying I valued, but what I was actually doing.”
In Essentialism, Mr McKeown encourages readers to review their writing every 90 days or so and closely assess small details. Passing events or brief encounters that seemed trivial in the moment might take on new weight – or reveal larger life patterns. Looking back to discover what is meaningful and true can help us propel forward in a new way.
“Your inner world is a gold mine,” Jensen said. “When you connect that with your outer world – boom! Magic happens. You create something that hasn’t been done before.
"You peel back another layer that otherwise would have been overlooked and tell a story that only you can tell.”
And keep documenting.
Because we don’t always know what may hold meaning in the future, capture whatever life fragments move you today.
Ponder the weight of your lover’s grasp. Record birdsong. Trace the shape of a shared moon. Or write about it all.
In our journals, Jensen reminds us: “We can be messy. We can go backwards or sideways. We can be wrong. We can embrace confusion with the same tenderness as we embrace delight and joy.”
By Simran Sethi © The New York Times
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.